N. Ameritrip – Chapter 1


I always have this travel bug in me.

This travel bug and my inertia are constantly in conflict. Some people say travel bug is a disease. Should I go? Should I not? Why not! Travelling requires a lot of planning, and planning takes time. I usually like to be a bit spontaneous, but there’s a fine line between being spontaneous and not having enough planning (which will eventually lead to disasters).

Quite a while ago I came across an article about Lonely Planet. It talks about what actually happened behind the scene (book). Being a professional travel writer isn’t easy. Regardless of personal preference, the writer has to try almost everything in the city – hotels, hotspots, bookstores, museums, and the list goes on. When s/he comes back from the trip, s/he will have to lock up in a room alone… write down everything while everything is fresh in memory. (Yes, I kinda feel that part… even tough I’m not a professional blogger/writer, I find the post is always better when it’s typed up while the image is vivid, feeling is strong… there’s just more sentiments to it.)

Now, I’d like to share my one-month North American trip experience with you, my dear friends. By writing it down, I hope beautiful memories can be better preserved. And hopefully some of the info will be useful to you.

Chapter 1 – Planning

(the nitty-gritty -_- you can skip this if you want)

One day, while browsing RedFlagDeal, I found out about the special Air Canada had on its North America Flight Pass. For $799 per person, you get unlimited travel* one month in April (2008) and for two months April & May (2008), the cost would just be doubled. If you decided to travel with another person, the one month pass would be about $750. Good things are to be shared. So I asked around and finally a friend could go with me. (yay!)

*Unlimited travel does come with conditions; here are the major ones that I cared…
– Travel (flights) must be on Tuesdays, Saturdays or Sundays.
– Cannot travel between two U.S. cities (i.e. if you are in the U.S., you gotta come back to Canada first before you can fly to the U.S. again)
– Online booking at aircanada.com only
– You’ll be charged for any booking changes/cancellations.
– Non-transferrable

Although there were some conditions we had to meet, $750 per person was still a very good deal. The final destinations, as some of you may already know, are: Miami, Vancouver, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Montreal and Chicago.

How did we come up with that?
Well… we each picked out the several cities that we really wanted to go – those actually worked out to be Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. Vancouver was on because of relatives and friends. Montreal and Chicago were two possibilities, but somehow… maybe we both got really tired of planning and for some reasons, I just threw them in the first itinerary. And the first itinerary became the final one. (lol)

While finalizing the itinerary, some factors were taken into considerations:
1. Cost of living – Lodging
Numerous website used: e.g. expedia for hotels – you’ll probably have to compare a lot of search results.
Deciding factors includes: Location – can you get to places easily and with low cost? How frequent does public transport operate? Price/promotions – any special price for staying 3-4 nights? Complimentary breakfasts; Wi-Fi access; Free airport shuttle bus OR Cost of transportation between airport and hotel; Condition/safety.
Hotel rating and reviews were very helpful.
If hotels are really expensive… how about hostels? In some states, hostels are not taxed. If budget is really tight, you can either hook up with your family/friends OR you can check out the couchsurfing project. It is a good alternative, but need to use with caution. Check it out and you will know what I mean. Also, check RedFlagDeal forum for deals and advice.

2. Cost of living – Transportation
Main website used: VirtualTourist, and hotel reviews. Find out if you can get around with public transport or a car is needed. If a car is needed – how much would it cost to park at hotel?

3. What to do? What are worth seeing? Any special events? Some show tickets will need to be booked in advance.
Main website used: VirtualTourist, Vegas.com

4. Any sort of special promotion.
Main website used: travelzoo

Once we had the answers to these, we got an idea of how many days we would spend on each city. Of course we also had to plan accordingly based on the “Tue/Sat/Sun” restriction. Given the weak US$, we were actually quite lucky that we don’t have to care too much about the Canadian$ vs. US$ difference. One less thing to worry about!

Since we will be traveling to 7 different cities without laptop, to be safe (ensure we have something to fall back to), I bought the Lonely Planet Encounter guide books for 3 major cities in which we’re gonna spend the most (and the least) time. For the lowest price, order from Amazon. They have free shipping for any order $39 or more. You can get 4 guide books for around that price.

Why choose Lonely Planet Encounter? (Again, no commission.) I got their guide book for my London trip last year and found it very useful. It is easy to read, light-weighted with a detachable map. It gives you very good background information of the city and the BEST in different categories.

Are you guys bored yet? Maybe some readers already out-clicked before they reach this paragraph… -.-

Ok… Where was I?

Oh. Yes. Itinerary.

So… After the itinerary… I was lucky that my friend has connection with a travel agent. So we got the agent (Uncle T) to look over our stuffs – a whole spreadsheet of flight schedules, timeline, lengths of stay, top 3 hotel choices per city, the to-do in each city, packing checklist, weather forecast, budget (accommodation, transportation, meals; all the necessity + cost of ticket = estimated three thousand something dollars per person). What he said? Very professional! (lol – flattered… guess I have the talent to be a travel agent.)

The major planning all happened within a week or so. The problem is, since we had to book accommodations for most of the cities, we couldn’t finalize the bookings until we have sorted out all the flights. Then one night we spent many hours booking all the flights all at once. (And the fact that we will not bring laptop to the trip also forced us to book in advance).

The flight-booking experience? It was EXHAUSTING. I’m telling you. That was the part that unexpectedly took up a lot of time. We flew from the East to the West, then use Vancouver as the hub for flight transfers between the U.S. cities in the west coast. In total, we booked eleven flights. So, if you decided to get the pass and book a lot of flights, start a bit earlier in the day. We started at night and by the time we finished, we looked dead. I know some people, (from what I saw on the forums), book the flight right at the airport… they just see what would be the next flight available, then hop onto that flight. That sounds like a cool idea! But I wonder… where do they stay? Anyhow, we were a bit conservative and booked everything in advance.

Thank to Uncle T, we also got some discounts for the hotels – otherwise, maybe we would have stayed at some hostels.

So… Everything’s done?

Not really… now it’s the time to shop for travel insurance (unless you got coverage already). Unfortunately, I just quitted my job and lost my coverage. Argh.

After shopping around, I found that PC Financial offered the best rates. One thing – actually the shopping for travel insurance should start BEFORE you even buy the ticket. For a lot of the insurance companies, they will not cover your trip cancellation and interruption unless you get the insurance before you buy the ticket. PC Financial was an exception. So, I got their comprehensive plan (medical + trip cancellation, etc.), which was about the same price as the RBC’s medical insurance.

What about car rental? Yes, we had to rent a car for LA. That was the only city. All the other cities I found were pretty good/OK to get around using public transport. Got some maps from CAA before we left, so we didn’t have to rent the GPS. Also, if you have Gold Visa, it usually comes with Auto Rental Collision/Loss Damage Insurance. Remember… read all the small fonts, and give them a call if not sure.

After all these, I guess we were ready to go – after packing. That was another challenge since some cities were hot, and some were still quite cold and windy in April. *Again, put most of the liquid (e.g. lotions) in the check-in luggage. Here’s some travel tips from Air Canada.

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